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PERSPECTIVE

Keeping her feet on the ground

Finishing last in races for years hasn't extinguished one runner's enthusiasm. Humiliation aside, it's still good for the heart.

October 02, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts
  • Runners compete in a half marathon in Sydney, Australia
Runners compete in a half marathon in Sydney, Australia (Cameron Spencer, Getty…)

My high school cross-country T-shirt from my senior year had the word "Slow" monogrammed across the sleeve.

I'd finished more than my share of races in dead last. And I'd been photographed more than once with medal-toting teammates while I held up a participant ribbon.

So why I ran seven years for my little school — and why I continue a love-hate relationship with running to this day — baffles me.

I took up the sport in the sixth grade for no better reason than this: I wanted to get a medal to show off to my little brother, the baseball star who laughed at my only trophy, earned for selling Girl Scout cookies.

Running, I thought, would be perfect for a clarinet-playing klutz. There were no rules to learn. And I wouldn't have to worry about getting my braces hit by a ball to the face.

Problem was I was terrible.

Whoever said "slow and steady wins the race" clearly was delusional.

I'll always remember one particular race, during my freshman year of high school. Like many Oklahoma cross-country competitions, the two-mile course was mapped out on a flat piece of land that flooded with the slightest rain. It was cold and wet that day, and my teammates and I walked the course beforehand, using sticks to measure the deepest parts of the puddles.

Within the first hundred yards of the race, I was at the back of the pack. I was so far behind at the halfway point that the people stationed there to shout out the competitors' running paces already had put their stopwatches away. I heard them say, "We've still got one coming!"

At one point I tripped and fell into a pool of water; a teammate's dad had to help me up. I got so lost in a grove of trees that my coach yelled, "Just cut across to the finish line!"

When my mom saw me coming, she slowly lowered her video camera.

I was carried to her car, embarrassed. But I got an ice cream sundae out of the deal and wrote an overly dramatic essay about the experience in my English class that made my teacher think I had overcome some great adversity.

I flirted with other sports too. In basketball, the one time my coach pointed to me during a game was to have me fetch water bottles for the girls on the court. In golf, I accidentally hit another player in the back with an over-zealous swing during putting practice.

I thought about trying out for cheerleading once. But even I couldn't kid myself.

I always returned to running.

Even when a new cross-country coach handed me a walkie-talkie before practice because he needed to get a haircut and knew I'd be awhile.

Even when little old ladies driving through town offered me rides back to school during practices.

Even when I worked for my hometown newspaper and the sports editor wished me "Happy birthday, Slow!" in print.

My senior year, I qualified for the state cross-country race in my division only because they didn't have enough runners.

I beat two people out of 200 and celebrated my victory with another ice cream sundae.

In college, my roommate and I convinced ourselves we wanted to start running 5Ks. We got a subscription to "Runner's World" and bought matching pink running earmuffs to motivate us. We ran twice.

Since moving to California two years ago, I've taken up running again. And I enjoy it, truthfully, because it's impossible to be in a bad mood at the end of a heart-pumping run.

So when my husband agreed to do his first-ever 5K with me last year, I was delighted. He had never been a runner, and I couldn't wait to beat him to the finish line.

I finished less than a minute ahead of him. During a race last month, he beat me by five.

I'm not slow, he always tells me. But inevitably he starts laughing because he's lying.

At least you keep at it, I've had people tell me. It shows perseverance and it keeps you in shape.

They're usually other runners. And they're always faster than me.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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